Rebecca Lowe is Director of FREER — a new initiative promoting economic and social liberalism. She is also an Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.
The first time I heard women referred to as a “demographic group”, it took me a while to stop laughing. Now, however — in the centenary of the year in which (some of) the half of the population with no Y chromosome gained the right to vote — we find ourselves in an age of identity politics. An age where “being a woman” means, to some, more than chromosomal difference. We also find ourselves in a time of cynicism: cynicism about politics in general; cynicism in particular about ways of measuring political attitudes. Regardless of the accuracy of the Irish referendum’s exit pollsters, political analysts are seen by a shouty internet set as a pressing part of the post-truth problem.
When better to launch a ConservativeHome investigation about “women”? (Choose your reason for the scare quotes.) If you think back to 1990s’ British politics, you’ll quickly land on thoughts of “Blair’s babes”. Yes, back then, Labour was dealing with the “gender gap”. As explained here in 2001 by IPSOS, this referred to the “consistent tendency in British general elections for women to be more supportive of the Conservatives than men, and less supportive of Labour” — something that “almost disappeared” in that year’s general election.
Fast forward to 2018, and you might have spotted headlines claiming the opposite. Sure, references to the Conservatives’ so-called “women problem” usually relate to party membership and representation (see below), but there’s also a general assumption that, today, women tend more towards voting Labour than Tory.
Now, if you look at polling breakdowns carefully, the real “problem” is age-related. As you’ll be aware, the younger you are, the more likely you are to vote Labour, and vice versa for the Conservatives. Indeed, as at the last election, the most recent polls show a very small gap between men’s and women’s views about the main parties — e.g. last week, ComRes had 34 per cent of women opting for Conservative at the next election as opposed to 37 per cent of men, and 36 and 37 per cent of women and men, respectively, for Labour — but vast differences by age (for both genders).
There are, nonetheless, interesting questions to be asked about gender. In this recent British Election Study article, for instance, Jane Green and Chris Prosser comment that:
“What is most clear from these analyses, which is already becoming a well-known fact about the 2017 general election, is that the demographic divide that most differentiated British votes in 2017 was one based on age. However, gender is a part of that story: as older men moved from UKIP to the Conservatives, this contributed to the older age basis of the 2017 Conservative vote. There may well be other reasons why the Conservatives were more attractive to older male voters in 2017, and exploring this possibility will be an interesting question for future analysis. An equally intriguing part of the puzzle is why younger women may have switched in higher numbers to Labour in 2017. Our analysis of undecided voters above is largely about the retention of Labour voters between 2015 and 2017. While the major story in 2017 is the age basis of vote choice and why this happened, gender will be an important and interesting part of the underlying explanation.”
Issues about membership and representation won’t disappear, either. Tim Bale claimed earlier this year that “[t]he lack of women among the Tory rank and file could well turn out to be a serious problem for those interested in getting the party to look more like the country it wants to govern”. His figures show that the gender split amongst Conservative members has gone from 51 per cent male and 49 per cent female in 1994, to 70 and 30, respectively, last year. Sure, far more men than women today join political parties, but not sufficiently so to explain that gap.
Fears about any Conservative gender problem will be countered by leadership facts: it hardly needs restating that there have been two Conservative female prime ministers. But that doesn’t answer questions about gender division related to membership and voting — nor can it be used to gloss over the difference between numbers of male and female MPs (though the difference between Labour and Conservative here is, of course, mostly owing to Labour’s all-women shortlists).
One common knee-jerk reaction to all this is to make claims about men’s and women’s policy preferences. To my mind, people are individuals, and gender is only one of many “identity” groupings; to attempt to target voters based on a single such grouping seems not only insidious but also largely unproductive. Just because there shouldn’t be differences between men and women over things like policy, however, doesn’t mean that there never are: attitudinal differences related to gender are, I think, explicable by reference to social convention, educational differences, etc. Women may be more likely than men to have strong views about specific issues like childcare, for instance, because (in our still unequal society), they’re more likely to have dealt with that side of things than a male partner.
But, regardless of whether it should, to what extent could a policy-based rethink help the party to gain female attention? The most recent YouGov poll shows women’s and men’s overall priorities to be very similar. When asked to choose up to three issues as the “most important facing the country at this time”, both genders put “leaving the EU” top, followed by “health”. There’s a switch in the middle, with more men putting “the economy” next (34 per cent have it in their top set, as opposed to 20 per cent of women), whereas women think immigration, crime, and housing are greater priorities. But, overall, it all looks extremely similar — as do men’s and women’s responses to the question of which party they think would handle certain “problems” best (e.g. the NHS, immigration, education). Again, age disparities look vastly greater, particularly in terms of the priorities of 18-24 year olds. Unsurprisingly, the younger you are, the more likely it is that you believe Labour would be better at dealing with political problems.
Although these findings match views commonly found in recent analytical literature, they are based, of course, just on a quick look at one poll — never a particularly good idea! And while the large overall sample size of nationally representative polls like this mean their crosstab data on gender, and even age, are usually reliable, it’d be even better to commission specific polling into these, and more detailed, kinds of questions.
Whether or not the Conservatives have a “women problem”, however, there are clearly questions about what’s happening in relation to voting, membership, and representation — and what the party should or might want to do. Over the summer, ConservativeHome will, therefore, be publishing two follow-up pieces to this column — one looking at stats and polling, and the other featuring the views of representatives, activists, and members — in the lead-up to a party conference event on this topic.
We’d love to hear from you about this, particularly in relation to the assumptions often offered as explanations to claims of gender divide in the party. Is it that organisations such as Women2Win are too focused on a “certain set” of women? Is it that the Conservatives are still seen as the party of “housewives”? Is it that Nick Timothy’s attempts to woo Ukippers alienated women? Are there too few women Conservative MPs? Do women, particularly, want May to increase her focus on domestic violence and modern slavery? What effect have the political bullying and harassment scandals had on women’s engagement? Should the Party attempt to engage specifically with women? And if so, how can it without resorting to patronising pink buses?
For those of you, like me, who believe that women are essentially no different from men, and that any difference in attitude is owing to societal lags in recognising that — and for those of you who are Conservatives partly because of your more traditional views about issues like gender difference — it’s time we addressed these questions. After all, if we don’t, we’re leaving them open to exploitation by the pedlars of modern identity politics, who will only go on to foster new forms of societal division, all the while spouting the rhetoric of inclusivity.